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Non-Review Review: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is a profoundly odd film.

On the surface, it looks like another one of those “movies they don’t really make anymore” that tend to get a small release around awards season, like Bad Times at the El Royale or Widows. It is an old-fashioned private detective story that starts with something relatively small before pulling back to reveal a vast and insidious conspiracy at work. It is a movie that is both a genre piece and a statement, and so seems an appropriate release for this late in the calendar.

Railing against the system.

However, on closer inspection, Motherless Brooklyn is much more surreal piece of work. The film was a passion project for writer, director and star Edward Norton. Norton had been struggling to bring the film to screen for the better part of two decades. It is a period piece in more than just its fifties New York setting. It feels like a time capsule. Although Motherless Brooklyn is only Norton’s second theatrical film as director, it arguably feels much more tailored to Norton’s style and interests than his actual directorial debut Keeping the Faith.

However, Motherless Brooklyn feels like it is lost in more than just time. The film is meandering, indulgent and unfocused. It has moments of incredible beauty and surprising power, but lacks the discipline to streamline everything else around those elements. Motherless Brooklyn is not a great film, but it is a strange one.

Evil plans.

Although Norton’s adaptation shifts the action to postwar America, Motherless Brooklyn is based on Jonathan Lethem’s late nineties novel of the same title. In some ways, that feels like the true nostalgia within the film. Much like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seemed to be looking back nostalgically to the nineties as much as to the sixties, Motherless Brooklyn occasionally feels like an effort by Norton to recapture some of the mood and texture of the late nineties.

After all, Norton’s own creative peak arguably arrived around the same time that Motherless Brooklyn was published. Although still a respected actor with a long and varied career that includes partnerships with directors like Wes Anderson, Norton has never quite regained the cultural cachet that he enjoyed at the turn of the millennium with films like American History X or Fight Club. That hot streak continued into the early years of the twenty-first century with films like The 25th Hour.

Nor(ton) the battle to the strong…

At his peak, Norton was mentioned in conversation as one of the great American actors. His name could be dropped in conversation with figures like Robert DeNiro. None of this praise felt like hyperbole. Norton was one of the most reliable actors working. Even when the film itself wasn’t up to scratch, it was usually interesting to watch Norton at work. However, unlike other intense character actors like Christian Bale, Norton has struggled to acclimatise to the changing tide in Hollywood.

As intellectual property became the currency of the era, Norton never managed to leverage his talent into franchise films. There seemed to be mutual agreement on this point. The disagreement with Marvel Studios over The Incredible Hulk and his phoned-in performance in The Italian Job made it clear that Norton had little interest in being a hired hand in a franchise machine and that the franchise machine was unlikely to give him the room necessary to do the work that he wanted to do.

A driven detective.

As such, the nostalgia within Motherless Brooklyn makes a great deal of sense. Motherless Brooklyn is the kind of movie that doesn’t cast Edward Norton any more, because movies like Motherless Brooklyn don’t exist any more. There’s something almost admirable about Norton’s commitment to this, as if he willed the project into existence primarily so that he could have one more turn as the kind of leading character that he would play twenty years ago.

Indeed, there is a sense that Motherless Brooklyn is stuck in time, even beyond the setting. Motherless Brooklyn seems to have been written for a much younger leading man. Norton casts himself as Lionel Essrog, an assistant to a New York Private Detective. Norton is fifty years old, even though the part seems to have been written for somebody much younger. It is a part that belongs to man in his twenties or thirties, as Norton would have been when he first latched on to the idea of adapting the book.

Rose to the occasion.

The film never explicitly states how old Lionel is meant to be. Certainly, the casting of sixty-four-year-old Bruce Willis as his mentor makes it possible to believe Norton in the role. However, there are more suggestions that Lionel is a young man. He is treated as a kid brother by his co-workers. Memories of Catholic school keep bubbling to the surface, as if to suggest that they are not as far gone as they might be. Certainly the movie’s central romance – with an actor fourteen years Norton’s junior – would make more sense with a younger lead.

Still, Lionel is the kind of role that audience members might associate with Norton at his creative prime. Suffering from a vaguely defined Tourette’s-like neurological condition – “it’s like I got glass in my brain,” Lionel offers by way of explanation – he is prone to uncontrollable movements and outbursts. While it would be unfair and reductive to describe Lionel as a collection of tics and jerks, the character feels of a piece with Norton’s work in films like Primal Fear or The Score.

Tic’ed off.

Norton works hard, and his performances often seem designed to showcase how hard he works. There is nothing wrong with this. Norton’s intensity is responsible for some of the very best performances of the nineties – in films like Primal Fear or American History X or Fight Club. At his best, Norton is an actor who thrives on the idea of transformation, and who can manifest that transformation in front of the audience’s eyes. However, if something goes slightly wrong in the performance, it can easily veer into crass exploitation or distracting quirk.

Lionel the kind of lead performance that has become increasingly rare over the past decade, whether fairly or not; the kind of work mocked in Tropic Thunder and exemplified in I Am Sam. Even ten years ago, it seems likely that Motherless Brooklyn would have been pushed as a major awards season contender. The fact that it has disappeared so completely into the background offers an illustration of how sharply times have changed.

Station keeping.

Even taken on its own terms, Motherless Brooklyn suggests that it might be for the best that this sort of performance style has gone out of fashion. Norton is committed to the role, but it still feels awkwardly outdated. Norton’s performance is careful and meticulous, but also overly mannered. Every twitch and outburst feels perfectly positioned, even when Lionel is on the edge of frame or out of focus, as if Norton is worried that the audience might forget for even a moment what Lionel is living with and how hard Norton is working with it.

It doesn’t help that Lionel feels like a performance rather than a character. Motherless Brooklyn repeatedly tries to use Lionel’s brain condition as a metaphor tied into his private detective narrative. Most obviously, Lionel’s scattered outbursts work as an illustration for the process of trying to make sense of a chaotic and random world. After all, who hasn’t felt like they have a head full of glass when trying to understand the absurdities of modernity? “My brain isn’t broken!” Lionel protests at one point, tired of being mad to feel like a “freakshow” or being dismissed as insane.

Cherry up, everyone.

More than that, Motherless Brooklyn repeatedly likens Lionel’s condition to jazz music. The soundtrack is saturated with jazz, largely overseen by Wynton Marsalis and Thom Yorke. At a jazz club, Lionel finds himself in perfect rhythm with the improvised and discordant notes; for the first time, he’s in rhythm. At one point, Lionel sits down with a jazz musician who describes his talents, “They say it’s a gift, but it’s a brain affliction all the same.” As such, it feels like Lionel’s condition is just a thematic element rather than something that makes him a more complete character.

It doesn’t help that outside of Lionel, Motherless Brooklyn is far too long, too unfocused, and too familiar. As Lionel digs into the case that his mentor was working, he finds that it leads back to city hall and weaves through urban planning and construction. The plot tries to convolute and complicate itself, but the conspiracy all flows in one direction. The details of the plot are incidental, which means that Motherless Brooklyn runs aground once Lionel identifies the dark heart of the conspiracy, the grand ambitions at play, and the particulars of the relationships between the players.

“We built this city on rock ‘n’ rollin’ poor people and minorities out of their homes.”

Of course Motherless Brooklyn is an analogy for the Trump era, with urban development playing as a metaphor for ethnic cleansing. It even casts Alec Baldwin, in case the audience misses the point being made. There is something to be said for how candidly Motherless Brooklyn discusses issues of race and class in terms of these familiar real estate scams, but far too much of Motherless Brooklyn plays like a stilted update of something like Chinatown. There is even a scene that finds Fisher Stevens doing his best Roman Polanski impression.

To be fair to Norton, there are flashes of brilliance tucked away within the film. Even if his work feels little overly showy and mannered, Norton remains a fantastic performer. It is good to see him working again, and given a role into which he might sink his teeth. While his twitches and outbursts feel a little too forced, Norton occasionally manages to bring a genuine pathos to Lionel. The most affecting moments in Motherless Brooklyn hinge on Norton’s vulnerability rather than his talent, a silent look in his eyes as he submerges in water.

“Bullet time. Oh, wait, I wasn’t in that late nineties classic.”

There are some lovely directorial choices within the film, such as the camera’s recurring interest in the paintings and portraits that fill urban spaces, often simulacra of the real world that they are replacing. The fictional villain Moses Randolph is heavily inspired by real-life developer Robert Moses, and there is no small irony in his position as an urban planner responsible for parks; wilderness controlled and contained and curated. If those parks are inaccessible to so many city inhabitants, are they any more real than the pastoral paintings on the walls of the great buildings?

Motherless Brooklyn is at its strongest when it leans heavily into stylisation. At one point, a supporting character quotes Emerson’s observation that “every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man”, and Norton repeatedly literalises this. The scenes involving Baldwin’s hulking urban planner are heavily stylised and heightened, making great use of lighting and framing to underscore the sense that he is a shadow as much as a man; his face doesn’t appear in shot for quite some time, even as his presence is felt.

Moses supposes…

Even beyond that, there there smaller pleasures to be found within Motherless Brooklyn. While Norton seems to have set the novel against the backdrop of fifties New York in order to emphasise his thematic points about the development of the city, it also allows him to indulge in some of the familiar film noir clichés; reports swarm with flashbulbs through grand government buildings, as the men in power smoke cigars around mahogany tables and the streets are filled with vintage cars. Motherless Brooklyn never gets the blood flowing, but it does build a nice skeleton.

These aspects of Motherless Brooklyn are intriguing, but they are also fleeting and largely underdeveloped. They are lost amid the larger mess of the film around them.

One Response

  1. Motherless Brooklyn is one of my favorite books. I live, used to work, and my kid currently goes to school, in the very specific geographic stretch of Brooklyn where the book takes place (a stretch of neighborhoods running west from downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook). All the street names in the book are real; the neighborhood was an Irish/Italian working-class enclave and, when the book takes place (mid ’90s), the last vestiges of the Mob were still hanging on.

    But the neighborhood is now heavily gentrified, the houses now sell for $3-4 million apiece, and the area that Jonathan Lethem (who grew up on those same streets) wrote about, is unrecognizable today. The Bergen Street storefront where Frank Minna worked in the book, is now a Dunkin Donuts.

    In the book, Lionel specifically had Tourette’s. He was the first-person narrator, and his thought processes and outbursts were a thrill to read. The book flashes back to the late ’70s and has a ton of razor-sharp local and pop culture references. Lionel doesn’t like jazz in the book — he likes Prince, whose music he likens to Tourette’s. But the plot is the weakest part of the book.

    The movie is set back in 1957 and, apart from the opening scene and the characters in the Minna detective agency, has a completely different plot and cast. The movie plot is a direct lift from Robert Caro’s biography “The Power Broker”, the life of Robert Moses, who really did do all those things to NYC and really did destroy his brother. When Moses Randolph in the movie threatens to send a baseball team to California if they won’t work with him — well, Robert Moses literally did that.

    So Motherless Brooklyn is really a mashup of two unfilmable but near-perfect books. I loved the movie (and the books it’s based on), but it’s a very, very niche project.

    (In the book, Lionel was 28 and Minna was 40 in the present day, with 15 year’s worth of flashbacks).

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